Not Back to School

For the first time in more than 15 years, this autumn, I won’t be heading back to school; and my wife, after 18 years of teaching, has also opted to take her career in a new direction. Since 2002, I’ve been involved in educational settings in a wide variety of capacities — working, volunteering, attending, or some combination of the 3 (in addition to the other jobs I’ve held — oy vey, that’s a lot of jobs). And, over the course of each school year, I learned a great deal about: education programming, the impact of a school’s culture and the teachers that define it, the way students react to various types of incentives, the importance of community support, the role of parents/guardians and caregivers, the good, bad & ugly that comes from a strong, weak, or negligent administration, and of course, the ways in which opportunities, or lack of opportunities, affects a student’s long-term trajectory; (not to mention all of the latest trends, fads, slang, and how to up my emoji game). As I reflect on what I’ve experienced/learned, I can only wonder, what if?

What if?

What if we allowed high school students to tell us how they define success, and then let them work towards that goal, given a set of loosely constructed parameters within which they would need to stay? How would that change their outlook on school, on their future, on society? How much of a difference could that make in their long-term involvement within their local community?

What if all communities had the ability to financially support their local schools? What would happen if we could make-up for the lack of state funding, which prevents those students most in need from getting the extra help that is required, to achieve some semblance of equity? What types of investments would we see in the schools where 70% of kids are experiencing poverty? What sort of programming might we find that could provide those opportunities that are taken for granted in more affluent communities? How would that positively affect the inter-generational programming that is already doing great work?

What if the funding of education was looked at in the same way that we look at funding our military – as a matter of national security? What if we decided that taxes were a net positive, when being used to promote the common good through public educational services? What if we deemed it to be in the public’s interest to ensure every student’s potential is realized?

What if all administrations (not just some) understood the importance of supporting staff by… supporting staff, and providing meaningful and ongoing professional development? How would that change the current paradigm? How might that change the efficacy of educators, as they prepare for a new challenge?

There are a lot more What Ifs” we could consider (and I won’t even start on what’s happening in our education programs in America’s great universities), but until we have elected officials who are all-in, and are willing to do whatever is necessary to provide public schools with the necessary funds, it’s just an exercise in futility. Even those proposals that don’t have large price-tags attached are connected to funding by the series of human links that allow for the continued operation of schools. So until that day comes, we should focus on those practices that are most likely to contribute to a student’s success.

What Works

Looking back and assessing which practices had the greatest effect on the students, I recall three particular applications or ideas: 1) Personal Connections (being part of a community, which directly relates to class-sizes), 2) Meaningful Learning Practices (connecting what is learned to real-life and teaching the topic in a way that is engaging for the learner), and 3) Funding ($$$$$). The first and third items are true across all grade levels, to include post-secondary. The second practice is most relevant beginning around 8th or 9th grade (and also important in the younger grades), depending on the individual student. These 3 items, in no particular order, have done more to promote student growth (mental, psychological, and emotional), than any other combination of educational programming or curriculum. When students feel that they are part of a community, are given the opportunity to learn about subjects/fields that they find interesting, and the school/district has enough money to ensure kids have the necessary resources to experience what that learning can lead to (e.g. field trips, camps, or bringing outside professionals into the classroom), there is no limit to how far that student can go. And how far a student can go often aligns with how that student defines success.

When adults attempt to define success for the students, they rarely use specifics, and they rarely get it right. No one can tell me what success looks like in my life, aside from me. Why do we think we can tell students what success looks like for them? This goes against the very idea of having students do their best in order to achieve “their” goals. Let’s let them tell us where they want to go and then help them get there. For some it will be a 4 year college, for others a 2 year degree or year-long certificate program. Others will want to serve their country in the military or spend a year volunteering, before deciding what comes next in their life. Others will go directly into the world of work; and for these young people we need to have more pipeline programs that help them realize their dreams. Through a combination of on-the-job training (OJT) and one or two classes, 2 days a week, they can learn a trade while earning a living and feel successful as they see their efforts pay off. Additionally, the efficacy they are building can provide benefits that will extend to the other adventures they encounter throughout life. That skill, efficacy, isn’t something that will be tested for on a standardized test, but it will better prepare a person for what follows upon entering adulthood.

If we know anything about life, we know that it rarely goes according to plan. The best laid plans veer off course and we spend years recalculating and navigating for a new course. The future of work, and the rate at which technology is changing, virtually guarantees that the average worker will go back to school at least once (which means, changing plans), if not several times, to update skills or learn a brand new “career”. When one decides to switch careers, and goes back to school to learn a new set of skills, efficacy goes a long way in helping them persevere. So we owe it to the younger generations to make sure their efficacy levels are as high as possible before they reach adulthood. And considering the number of hours they spend in classrooms, school is the ideal place to work on this.

I’ve learned from a host of brilliant minds — entrepreneurs, educators, creatives — to include many teachers, students, staff, parents, community members, and people who have dedicated their lives to helping children. They all have/had different ideas of what success looks like, and they all understood the importance of believing in oneself, i.e. efficacy. When class and/or work settings were smaller, they had more time to build-up each student/employee and make them feel as if they were controlling their own learning. If we can provide more of this type of interaction in public schools, we can go a long way towards achieving successful outcomes as defined by the students.

By providing superficial goals and deeming students successful, upon completion of “mastering” said goals/skills, we’re setting kids up for disappointment. And furthermore, the failures that occur aren’t genuine, they’re pre-determined, based on a set of factors that has nothing to do with the child’s actual intelligence. Allowing them to take a more meaningful role in their future, failing and succeeding, provides the motivation needed to get the most they can out of their educational opportunities.

In 2010, I wrote a reflection on what it means to be “All In“, as it related to working in education. Eight years later, I feel no less passionate about the work of educating young people, I do however, feel that the system is set-up in a manner to prevent every student from getting the best possible education. That doesn’t mean that the overwhelming majority of the millions of people involved in education aren’t doing their best to provide opportunities, it means that State, Local, and Federal Governments aren’t providing the necessary funds to ensure every student gets the instruction, attention, and opportunity they deserve. Let’s work on providing more funding so as to facilitate the personal connections and meaningful learning practices that work so well when provided.

If you’re headed back to school this fall, best of luck!

 

 

 

Gen Z – Please Don’t Teach

Gen Z, iGen, post-Millennials… Please don’t teach. Just don’t do it. Save yourself the headaches & the heartache. Keep a little more, or a lot more, of your sanity, your mental health, your physical health… … … Please, don’t teach. Don’t work 60 hours a week for a paycheck that won’t cover your monthly expenses, not to mention the student loans that you have no reasonable time-line for paying back. Please, seriously, don’t teach. Take your brilliant minds to business school & major in finance. Or use your gift for numbers to become an accountant. Do something positive in a field that treats you like a professional, any field, but don’t teach. Forget what you’ve heard & don’t follow your passion, if your passion is to teach. Do something, do anything, just don’t teach. Don’t think about the best teachers you had, the ones who inspired you to be the best person you could be. Don’t think about the students who need great teachers, in order that they may grow up to be successful and live fulfilling lives. Don’t think about anything remotely close to the idea of teaching. Don’t do it — it won’t do you any good; you don’t want to teach.

Consider all your options, and then, Don’t teach! Market demands have proven that the value in a teaching degree is about 1/2 of the value you’ll get from a business degree (dependent upon state & school district), which means you earn less, by a factor of x depending on which locale you chose for your masochistic adventure. Don’t teach for the same reason that increasing numbers of people don’t go into squirrel grooming, it doesn’t pay. It doesn’t pay monetarily, when measured against people with similar educational attainment working in other fields. And it doesn’t pay when measured in respect levels, as we’ve witnessed in State, after State, after State.

It really is basic economic principles at work – supply, and demand. While it may be easy to dismiss the simplicity of this idea, imagine how freaked out a State or community would be if all of a sudden, they didn’t have adequate staff to open the school doors. Imagine the parents, employers, local political officials, all wondering the same thing, “what are we going to do with all these kids!!!?”. If they don’t have adequate staff to fill the positions (supply), they will be forced to do 1 of 2 things. Option 1 involves choosing to do nothing and watching the chaos as it ensues. This is unlikely because, well, they’re politicians, they enjoy their positions in elected office. The more likely scenario is that they would start doing the difficult work of figuring out how to fix the situation (addressing demands). And because most of them believe very strongly in the principles of capitalism, they will start off by asking, how much will it cost. That’s when we’ll start moving the needle. That’s when we can start encouraging the following generation to consider a career in teaching. But not now, not today, not for a while.

Until that day comes – Gen Z, and Millennials in college who are still considering options – please, don’t teach. Find something else to do to fill your days. Take the passion you have for working with children and run a marathon, once a week, or climb K2 every year, or rescue baby gazelles as they’re being chased toward crocodile infested waters… by hungry lions. Use your passion to fuel your successful business venture that will land you on the World’s Billionaires list, next year. Put your passion into a campaign, your own campaign, be your own campaign manager, win the election, have a big party, and then fight like hell for education funding. But please, whatever you do between the ages of 25 and 50, Do. Not. Teach.

Do not fool yourself into believing things will change before you have your own classroom. Don’t believe the lying liars who say they will act on the demands of the educators. Don’t give in to the desire to do what’s in your heart. Don’t encourage others to teach — and ask others not to encourage you. Encourage each other to build things, design things, count things, manipulate things, order things, re-order things, deliver things, fix things, explain things, comfort things, enlighten things, send things, explain things a 2nd, 3rd, 27th time, accept and reject things, praise things, imagine things, coach things, invent things, and encourage things. And if you do all of those things, in some other job, you can pretend that you spent a day teaching, and that will be enough, even if it’s not. Because in whatever it is you’re doing, you will find some modicum of respect and dignity that you may not find while teaching.

Please, don’t teach. Too many of the folks who are charged with ensuring the basics, e.g. 1) students have adequate resources, 2) teachers and support staff are paid a living wage commensurate with the job they do and the educational degrees they have earned, 3) school buildings are maintained — they simply don’t care. They tell us they care, but their actions belie their true colors. Please, please, don’t do it. And if you’re thinking, “well, maybe I’ll just go the route of college professor, they’re well paid and highly respected”, think again.

This isn’t just a problem in our pre-k – 12 settings, it spills over into post-graduate coursework as well. So many of our current professors are working in adjunct positions. Many universities have witnessed significant increases in the cost of a 4 year degree (in the past 25 years) while simultaneously cutting back on the number of full-time tenured professors, not to mention the wages paid to the part-time professors. It’s almost as if America has a secret desire to dumb-down the electorate (I want to believe that’s not the case). At any rate, your plan to spend the extra $50, $75, $100k, to get that PhD and work in the ivory towers at a prestigious, or solid, or well, you know, school, isn’t going to work out for you. You’ll be eating Ramen noodles and Oscar Mayer sandwiches on tasteless white bread, and teaching 4 classes a semester, until you die, at the age of 83. Don’t teach.

Please, don’t teach. You will be blamed for what you do, for what you don’t do, for doing too much, or doing too little. You’ll be blamed by parents when you push the child to be more engaged. You’ll be blamed by parents when you don’t push hard enough (because you can see when a student is struggling and not able to take on additional stressors). You’ll be blamed by administrators for not putting in enough time… outside of working hours, and you’ll be blamed by those same administrators for being too stressed out, which negatively affects your work, because you aren’t able to achieve any semblance of balance in your life. You will be blamed by the far-right fanatics who believe that Rush and Ann, and others, are spot-on when they blame teachers for the liberalization and downfall of America. You will be blamed for the poor grades a student receives and you will be blamed when those same students are held out of extra-curricular activities due to those poor grades. You will be blamed for the U.S. rank in international standardized tests (which mean absolutely nothing when it comes to the opportunities a child will receive, that’s almost purely a socio-economic factor), you’ll be blamed for the world coming to an end, whenever that happens to take place. You cannot escape this blame, it comes with the job, it follows you wherever you go, it weighs on you, and weighs on you, and weighs on you, until you quit, after a year or three. Or maybe you’re one of the tough teachers, the gritty and determined who stick it out for eight, ten, fifteen years, before throwing in the towel. Regardless of years spent teaching, you will wish you had listened to me, and simply never started. Because once you start, it’s hard to quit. Please, don’t teach.

If I have failed in my efforts, and you decide to become a teacher, to become a servant of the people, the young people, the ones who will one day shape our world into a better place, as each generation tries to do, do yourself one favor. Promise yourself that no matter how bad it gets, no matter how horrible the day, the week, the year has been, you will remember that it’s about the kids; all of the work you put in is for the good of those children, our future. The sacrifices you’ll make matter. You’ll be a cheerleader, a life coach, a nurse, a referee, a warm smile, a comforting hug, a rock, a loving, supportive, consistent, optimistic, inspirational, and empathetic force, in many lives; in essence, you become the bootstraps that so many will pull-on as they “lift themselves up”. Don’t feel defeated or disheartened; hold your head high, you’re doing the work that few can fathom and fewer can accomplish. Make an impression — an impression that lasts a lifetime. But please…

 

 

How Many Minutes Does it Take to Fix It?

—In previous generations, time was measured in hours, days, weeks, months, quarters, and years. It was done this way because most tasks took that amount of time to complete or assess. In an 8 hour work day (or 10, 12, 14, depending on job type, age, decade, etc), you knew what you could accomplish, and what you couldn’t. In any given week, a small business could measure its performance via earnings and expenditures statements. One month was a good measure of how many products were made, as compared to previous months. Quarters offered reliable and predictable benchmarks for fiscal analysis, year over year. And a year, a year was the agricultural standard for determining how one fared in life. It was a “good year” or it was a “tough year”. We measured outcomes and success in this manner, and it was good, or fine, or something, but it worked. Somewhere between “there” and “here”, we’ve rearranged the way we measure output; we’ve moved onto minutes. And what happens in any number of minutes has a disproportionate affect on how we think about the larger time frames – and policy measures.

Minutes now consume our days. We don’t necessarily speak in minutes, all the time, but we think in minutes. Sociologists measure screen-time in minutes; educators measure class routines in minutes; police measure active shooting events in minutes; workout machines measure calories and “effort” and other nonsensical stuff, in minutes; commute times are measured in minutes; we are, in effect, a society that is controlled by the number of minutes any particular chore, or job function, or social engagement, or event/catastrophe, will take-up. We are 525,600 bits of life, in any given year. And this is neither good nor bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just is.

The past 18 months has seen more than its fair share of drama-filled minutes. From natural disasters to wo/man-made disasters, storybook endings, disastrous beginnings, and all that fell somewhere in between, we’ve spent a lot of minutes watching, marching, cleaning-up after, crying over, thinking about, and just being in a particular state. The minutes that make up 2017 (and most of 2018) will get more coverage in future history books, than the minutes of most years.

Considering the past months, and considering the time we spend doing any one thing in particular, in present-day America, I wonder, how long — how many minutes that is, it will take to fix what’s been destroyed, those things that have endured a year’s worth of shit-fuckery, for lack of a better term. Or will they ever be fixed? Maybe not. Maybe we will have to start fresh on certain ideas, like the democratic process and how that works and doesn’t work, depending on the various “working parts” involved in an election cycle.

In the short-term, the next 345,600 minutes, give or take, what will you do to move the needle on that which you are passionate about – the policies and proposals that will alter future landscapes. Will you advocate for changes via marches and phone calls and emails to your elected officials? Will you actively participate in a campaign, on behalf of a candidate who espouses the values and ideals that you believe to be most important? Will you engage with friends and neighbors and family members and talk about the state of our State and our Union, and consider what changes need to take place in order to move us forward? Whatever you choose to do, do it with passion. Do it whole-heartedly. Do it as if the future depends upon it…because it does.

What path will you choose?

Urban And Rural Economic Development

The United States has entered a new era. It is not an era defined by our politics, though they have played a role in getting us here, and it is not defined by our technological advances, though they too are important. The new era in which we find ourselves is defined by a gap, or a divide, a chasm between those who are on financially solid ground and everybody else. While we’ve experienced time periods similar to the current situation, in our nation’s past, we’ve never witnessed anything on this scale. The bad news is, it’s going to be difficult to find the political will required to address the problem. But there’s good news too… political will is only half the solution.

Large swaths of rural America have been stagnating or declining for more than a decade — some much longer. Simultaneously, many of our urban centers have experienced similar negative changes that have affected not only the physical place but more importantly, and no differently from rural areas, the people who call those places home. The reasons for each of these occurrences is not dissimilar. A combination of disinvestment (some purposefully, some not by choice) and an exodus of the young and creative folks, who are responsible for much of the entrepreneurial spirit we endeavor to, has left a significant hole that no amount of hard work can replace.

There are many exceptions that can be found, in both cities and smaller towns, but exceptions are not rules and exceptions are not always replicable, for a variety of reasons. In order to reverse current trends and correct the situation before it sets, several initiatives must be undertaken. Some of these ideas will work in geographic locations across the board (regardless of size or setting), others will be relevant to one place or another, and all will have people who naysay or attempt to discredit them as too far reaching or way-out-of-the-box; but at the end of the day, if major changes are not instituted, many cities will devolve into unrecognizable pools of caste and class and thousands of small towns will dry-up and cease to exist.

Urban & Rural

Rural places, like the one I grew up in, have been trying to find ways to remain economically and socially viable while their populations have shrunk, their tax-bases have likewise decreased (due to both population declines and wage stagnation), and their futures have become increasingly uncertain. This is not the case for all rural locales, but it does represent a significant portion of greater America. In many of these places, there is a strong desire, among some, to get back to the “good ole days” when life was “simpler”. The problem with that line of thinking is that that America, which was built on a combination of manufacturing, agriculture, and major infrastructure investments, ceased to exist more than 30 years ago. While we are in desperate need of new massive infrastructure developments (yet uncertain whether or not they will materialize), agriculture and manufacturing opportunities have declined as technological advances, outsourcing, and increases in productivity and efficiency have eliminated many of those jobs.

Regardless of where one lives, the loss of good paying manufacturing jobs, between 1980 and today, has had some sort of direct or indirect effect. When a small town or a big city loses manufacturing jobs, that impacts the workers, the family’s of the workers, the bartenders and servers that relied on them, the hair salons and barbers, the auto-mechanics, healthcare facilities, public schools (as local tax revenues decrease), movie theatres, retail stores of all types, etc., et al. We’ve seen it happen in small and medium size cities and former boomtowns like Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit. And while many of the mid and small towns have found it more difficult to rebound after such losses, the situation in some of our urban metropolises is less dire, if only for the promise that comes from having a large and diverse pool of talent amassed there. Some of these places have taken steps to re-imagine themselves as hubs of the new creative centers that will carry their regions forward. Others are still trying to understand how best to tackle the issue; and a few seem not to be paying any attention to the plight of the impoverished, or the disparity between the two Americas.

In his new book, The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida outlines several of the factors that have created the current financial situation and then lays out policy initiatives that might best address these problems. The overarching theme reinforces what we have come to know in these past decades. The future of industry lies in creative thought processes; and in places that generate more ideas, we will find more jobs, better paying jobs, and more opportunity for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. However, that does not mean that poverty will magically disappear as cities and regions reconfigure their plans to attract and retain more of this crowd. But it does provide the impetus, in the way of taxes, to supply the necessary services required to alleviate much of the poverty we have today.

Another idea that Florida (as many others have) points out is the benefit of diversity in a city/workplace. It is no coincidence that places with greater diversity have more success, regardless of the enterprise. Be it big or small, public or private, local or international, those ventures that include more diverse voices in the mix are more likely to find success. Part of this has to do with people bringing different experiences into the group, which can spark a completely new, and related idea, from someone who had never been exposed to radically different thought processes. Additionally, stepping out of one’s comfort zone (another part of the practice of working in a diverse setting) gets the mind to think from new perspectives.

Two other areas that Florida discusses in-depth are the need for greater investment in/development of mass transit (both within cities and between cities) and major investments in affordable housing for people/families who don’t make $100,000. or more, annually. This would address economic needs/issues in all areas of city and country, regardless of what divisions they feel may separate them.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to invest in high-speed rail between Eau Claire, WI and Ames, IA; but if we think about the potential for interactions between the knowledge bases surrounding and between locales (agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and the technologies that have not yet been realized), then maybe it makes sense to have some form of transit that could more easily connect people in those places. Having more modes of transport that connect major centers of industry, trade, government and hi-tech, can only benefit our future generations. Investing in great transit (aside from flight-based) that connects Des Moines and Minneapolis/St Paul (via Rochester – Mayo Clinic) and Chicago and Des Moines (via Madison – Univ of WI) with additional, and lower cost, transit options to carry people to destinations that are off the beaten path, like Ames and Eau Claire, would serve as a type of web that can create, within a predominantly rural region, corridors of knowledge that are specific to their needs. It would transform a disconnected or loosely linked place into a ruralopolis.

Rural & Urban

To be able to think more clearly about the challenges that we face, it is best to have a list of the issues/problems that need to be addressed. I’ve come up with 10 items that I have either witnessed first-hand and/or have been discussed by individuals who have researched and written about the issues. From Horace Cayton & St. Clair Drake (Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City – 1945) & Michael Harrington (The Other America – 1962), to Cynthia Duncan (Rural Poverty in America – 1992), Richard Florida, Stefanie DeLuca (Coming of Age in the Other America – 2016) & Matthew Desmond (Evicted: Poverty & Profit in the American City – 2016), to name but a few, many people have spent years, if not decades, studying the problems and working on solutions. The list is not exhaustive by any means and it applies to both urban and rural, and the spaces in-between — with the rural covering a wider scope of place and the urban drilling into specific problems in pockets of cities.

  1. Lack of money (wages, tax income/base, savings)

  2. Loss of jobs

  3. Loss of culturally significant attachments (many of which are tied directly to former manufacturing plants and the products they made as well as the local entities they supported)

  4. Loss of the “sense of place” that helped define people

  5. Loss of incentives that might retain more of the young adults

  6. Lack of diversity, which exacerbates the lack of new ideas problem (more pronounced in agrarian and sylvan settings)

  7. Insufficient planning for the future

  8. Insufficient action on future plans that have been developed

  9. Lack of a clear direction

  10. Desire to return to previous decades when life was simpler, this further inhibits the creative thought processes that are needed for progress to occur

    So how do we address all of this while maintaining fiscally sensible spending habits and without destroying communities in the process? The answers are not complex but they require buy-in from people at the local level. Mayors, city councils, school district administrators, businesses of all sizes, and the citizenry must get involved with the operations and revitalize the place from the ground up.

    Rural & Urban

The first step in the process is creating a plan. And planning, whether for a ruralopolis region or for a smaller area encompassing several large metros with interspersed rural constituents, requires relationship building. Mutual trust and cooperation concerning the long-term goals will be paramount to the success of the plan. The people that make-up the planning committee should be representative of every group and every area within the defined territory and the work must include all of the necessary components of a region: affordable housing, jobs and industry, education, transportation, tourism and culture, government, and any additional pieces that impact the larger economic zone. The basis for the planning has to be developed with a “win-win” approach in mind; the alternative, zero-sum game, creates more losers than winners, which is how we ended up in our current situation. In the beginning stages of the process, funding options should be debated and implemented as quickly as possible…progress on this scale requires a large investment.

Raising taxes is neither popular nor easy. However, when small increases are made, incrementally, over a series of 25 years, they add up; and, they don’t negatively impact anyone’s business or individual income via one big bump. This type of enactment allows for well-developed plans to be put into place over a period of decades (similar to the way the Federal Interstate Highway System was introduced). Moreover, without adequate reserves set aside, for the unforeseen expenses, the best laid plans can be sidetracked and never get restarted.

New developments, and old developments given new life, should include mixed-use blueprints with a commitment to pedestrian friendly spaces. Integrating business, culture, low, middle, and high-income housing, on a human scale (keeping in mind density limits), attracts the widest variety of people to an area. Combined with investments in educational opportunities, both post-secondary and K-12, the integrated communities can provide opportunities to move up the economic ladder. Along with housing, business, public transit, and education amenities, green spaces are key; whether for relaxing or exercising, natural surroundings provide respite from the daily grind. Anything that can be done to attract younger and more diverse groups of people, can help achieve greater viability for the long-term.

And speaking of the long-term, investments in education are the best way to ensure a strong future for a region. Those cities/states that currently invest more in education (from pre-k through colleges of all types) are the places with the most opportunity for all people.  Therefore, directing some of the new revenues (taxes) to local public schools, and investing in new post-secondary training options: e.g. pipeline programs tied to Technical & Community Colleges, certificate programs, or innovative high school programming that prepares students for a particular industry upon graduation. Education spending brings a greater return on investment (when thinking generationally) than any other type of expenditure. And, as an aside, education is not a business and trying to run it as such is a sure-fire way to fail the students; but, that doesn’t mean you can’t use business terminology and number crunching practices to analyze what’s working and what isn’t.

Once a young person has graduated from high school or completed post-secondary schooling, they need to be paid a living wage. If they are not, one of two things will happen; either they will move somewhere that pays them a living wage or more (depending on skill set), or they will remain in the community and not “give back” in terms of decreased: productivity, taxes, spending, and engagement, that they otherwise are capable of. Neither of these options are preferred if the goal is to increase economic viability and growth. Depending on your address, a livable wage might be $10.00 an hour or it might be $18.00 an hour, cost-of-living across the nation varies from one zip-code to the next. An added bonus, for the employers, is the data that shows a correlation between higher wages and lower turnover. Training can be a major source of spending and cost reductions in that area can be directed to higher wages. And don’t forget, the large middle class that made America’s economy strong for the better part of four decades was built in part on paying people a decent wage to do jobs that were neither highly skilled nor particularly difficult to learn. But they were paid well just the same (whether that was due to strong unions or employers who were concerned about their employees is not as important in this discussion) and they were vital components of their community. People working in low-wage jobs today should be paid similarly and given the same opportunity to take part in all aspects of the American dream.

As wages rise throughout a region (because other businesses will want to attract the best talent possible), and spending in local stores increases, economic vitality will attract entrepreneurs and new businesses will take hold. This can promote further growth; and, along with existing companies expanding, if demand warrants, the region will likely see more young people choosing to stay in the area or return to the area after spending a few years away learning new jobs or attending school. This is all part of a win-win scenario. But, be aware of the business wo/men who are looking to take advantage of your success.

There are corporations who like to play the tax break game. While it is true that businesses move for a variety of reasons, rarely do they choose a place just because it is offering the greatest incentives in terms of tax breaks; they typically know where they want to be and take advantage of cities that are hungry for new jobs. This is often done under the guise of job creation, which is ultimately seen as a victory. However, when the numbers come in, it turns out that all of the incentives provided, to attract the new firm, were not any better for the local economy so far as realizing substantial economic growth. And in the end, when corporations pay less, somebody else pays more — the members of the community. Or, those taxes are never collected, reducing services, reducing education funding, and reducing the ability to invest in new infrastructure that will attract other businesses and people. The most important piece of a successful business, in modern times, is having an educated workforce that understands how to problem solve. Therefore, collecting the taxes that fund local educational endeavors, is critical.

Creativity, in all manner of work, is central to success. Whether we’re looking at manufacturing, agriculture, hi-tech, service industry, sales, healthcare, education, or anything else, a workforce that can help streamline systems and integrate new technologies is key to keeping local, regional, and national economies growing. Whereas R&D was once tasked with innovation and finding more efficient ways to increase productivity, all employees are now asked to provide their input. This is to say, those places that invest the most in education will likely be the same sites that will experience the most growth.

In the midst of planning and designing, and building, politics will inevitably become an issue. Localities should push for more control over allocation of funds. States, and the Federal Government, should work with local officials to allow for this to happen with a degree of oversight to ensure Civil Rights laws are not being impinged and to make certain that protected classes are not being left out of the distribution. If the community has a bigger say in how and where tax dollars are spent, their buy-in, into the big plan, is strengthened and their engagement in and support of the big picture can work to bring in others. It is a model that requires inclusiveness and a “we are” attitude to enlist those who are unsure of the “progressive” agenda that has been undertaken.

When we think about those who are on financially shaky ground (to include all the “middle class” folks who are living paycheck to paycheck), we have to remember that: financial hardship and/or poverty is not a state of mind; poverty is not caused by laziness or a lack of morals; it is not a “culture”, as some would have us believe. Poverty, and therefore the decline of a place, has everything to do with policy and practice. Which policies have been implemented that have advantaged some and disadvantaged others and which policies have not been implemented because they are cost prohibitive and targeting the “takers” of society. What impacts have these policy decisions had on any individual’s ability to grow up in a stable neighborhood and attend public schools that are well funded? Which policies have been made law only to see state and local governments find loopholes and not allow the law to be practiced as intended? How do we place blame on the person who has had far fewer opportunities to excel and succeed and far more impediments placed in their path? These are the realities we must consider when thinking about how we’ve come to this point, socially and economically, in a nation such as ours. In his most recent book, Florida states, “Poverty occurs in the absence of institutions that unleash the creative energy of people and neighborhoods, or, even more so, when there are dysfunctional structures that harness and leverage these clusters of human creative energy.” If we provide the spaces for people to learn and to grow and to fail, without fear of that failure being an end, rather than a learning opportunity, we can build a web of interconnected regions that will carry us into the next century and beyond.

Urban & Rural

The work of building a new and better kind of society is not only needed here, but also in many countries around the world. This too was an area that Florida spent time discussing and the similarities that are found between the various locations is telling. He states:

“Lacking the kinds of basic infrastructure and division of labor we take for granted in the advanced world, they were forced to spend the majority of their time taking care of life’s immediate necessities: fetching their own water, bartering for and preparing food, and traveling long distances by foot or rudimentary forms of transportation. This left them scant time to devote to things that bring greater development—the further enhancement of their own skills and the broader development of their communities.”

This idea of time commitment dedicated to the preservation of life is not entirely different from what we see in our own communities, where higher levels of poverty have taken hold. People are spending greater amounts of time surviving which leaves less time (energy, money, etc) to focus on personal growth or developing ideas that could become money-making ventures, i.e. businesses. We don’t have to sit back and watch America deteriorate, we have the people power, the funds, and the work-ethic to make this country work to everyone’s advantage, we only need the will to make it happen.

 

Why “Black Lives Matter” Matters

The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013, shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Since that time, hundreds of African Americans have been shot by police officers (and many White, Hispanic/Latino, & Native Americans have also been shot). Tens of thousands of African Americans, in this same time, have had interactions with police officers, many that involved a disproportionate use of force (based on police records). For those who do not study criminal justice, social justice, or the history of injustice in America, it is easy to assume that because police have so many interactions with Black People, then Black People must be committing more crimes. But this is not the case. White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than any other group. Surprised? You shouldn’t be; White People make up more than 60 percent of our nation’s population. So if there are more White People, than Black People (by a nearly 5:1 ratio), and according to the FBI statistics, White People commit more crimes, on the whole, than Black People, why do we see greater use of force against Black People and greater incarceration rates of Black People? This, in part, is why Black Lives Matter exists.

To understand more fully why the Civil Rights Movement has been reenergized, we must have a better understanding of African Americans’ history in the place we call America. 400 years ago, this continent was inhabited by many Nations of First Peoples, and a few Dutch, French, English, and Spanish, amongst others. As the population of settlements grew, the need for “hired” help grew along with it. In 1619, Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia (against their will), to work the land; along with the labor provided by European indentured servants, the building of a nation had begun. For a short time, Africans were looked upon as being similar to the indentured servants, save for their religious practices, language, etc. However, it wasn’t long before the European nobility/landed class began to differentiate in their treatment of Africans (and first African Americans) and European laborers.

As slavery took shape in the Colonies, it differed from slavery in other places (and this is really important for everybody who likes to say “Black people owned slaves in Africa before White People owned slaves in America” (which wasn’t yet “America” when slavery started)). That is true; in different Kingdoms various forms of enslavement were practiced. However, many historians that have studied slavery on the continent have found no evidence supporting the idea that the chattel form of slavery practiced in the New World, was practiced in Africa. And chattel slavery, as practiced in the place that would become the United States, was about as severe a practice as one could imagine.

Chattel is another term for “property”. This means that the enslaved Africans and eventually African Americans were property. They had absolutely no rights that had to be honored by any White man. The enslaved were bought and sold just as cattle, horses, molasses, tobacco, etc. were bought and sold. And, when enslaved women had children, they were not born free, they were automatically enslaved—for life. People who had no knowledge of this country were ripped from their families and communities and shoved into a new place where they were stripped of their names, their customs, their religious beliefs, and their sense of self. They were “housed” in small shacks with dirt floors, made to toil in physically demanding work from sun-up to sun-down (whether in a field or in a plantation house), provided just enough rations to sustain their strength (most of the time), and almost never had the opportunity to remove themselves from this hell. Then, to make matters worse, after adapting and overcoming the initial chaos of that existence, and having started new families, getting married, having kids, doing what they could to make their life less painful, they were shocked back to reality.

The plantation owners didn’t care about inhumane treatment (the enslaved were considered sub-human/property); if the plantation owners were having “difficulty” with some of their “property”, difficulty that could not be fixed through the usual methods, they might sell that “property” to a plantation that could be five miles away or five states away. They also sold off “property” if they were in a bind for money or were offered a particularly good deal for one or more “pieces of their property”, or if the mistress of the plantation didn’t like a particular enslaved girl that her husband had taken a liking to (in other words, rape, repeatedly, until she was sold off or killed, or the husband grew tired of her and turned his affection to a new “piece of his property”). All of this, and more, had the effect of breaking up families—again. And with each new dissolution of a family unit, African Americans had more reason to hate not only the system of chattel slavery, but also the purveyors of that system, to include the enforcers of the laws and the patrols that existed to police them.

This period of our history, that included State sanctioned extreme violence against human beings, is the low point for us, as far as Humanity & Civility are concerned. Chattel slavery, in this land, lasted for 246 years. It was a terrible stain on our nation and if that was the only event that the African American community were forced to endure, it would be enough. But it wasn’t.

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Black Lives Matter

After the Civil War, the South underwent Reconstruction. This period lasted for approximately 14 years, 1863-1877, and witnessed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (and other hate groups), the suppression of Black votes, even though the 14th amendment granted citizenship and equal protection to the newly freed, and the 15th amendment guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens (while women continued to work for this right for the next 51 years), lynching, and general lawlessness, carried out by White People who could not stomach the thought of Black People being treated as equals. After Lincoln’s assassination, things got worse.

At the beginning of Andrew Johnson’s Presidency (1865-1869), he vetoed the bill that would have enacted land distribution to thousands of Freedmen. This act, in concert with the 13th Amendment’s allowance for enslavement as punishment for crimes committed, and the new Black Codes that, amongst other things, made vagrancy a crime, served to put the recently “out-of-work”, back to work. What this meant for millions of newly freed Americans, who had little or no money (because enslaved people aren’t paid wages), is that they could be arrested for not having a permanent home. This worked out quite well for the plantation owners (who were also involved in politics, i.e. helped write these laws) as they were in dire need of labor. The law enforcement of the county would pick up Freedmen who were out on the road (they might be looking for family, looking for work, surviving), arrest them and then send them off to the fields to work, without pay—again.

In 1877, Reconstruction came to an end and Jim Crow (the set of laws governing what Black citizens were and were not allowed to do) was fully implemented throughout the postbellum South. Jim Crow laws acted as a barrier that prevented African Americans from taking part in the full spectrum of America’s democratic process, economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and social interactions with White folk. What this meant was that in a matter of less than 15 years, the vast majority of African Americans had undergone two extreme status changes. From enslaved to citizen (albeit citizens who were terrorized and subjected to the Black Codes) and from citizens to 2nd class citizens, under the rule of Jim Crow. Progress? Yes. Enough? No.

The next era in our history was defined by the Supreme Court’s mandate of Separate but Equal. The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson made it lawful to discriminate (under the guise of equal accommodations) based on skin color. After a series of Supreme Court victories, Brown v. Board of Education struck down the Separate but Equal doctrine by stating the obvious, it is “inherently unequal”. This, however, did not put an end to Jim Crow. Over the course of the next 15 years, many States and individual school districts would fight the Court’s order to integrate (some never would) and many of the more affluent (and even less affluent) White families moved their children to private schools (where no Black students were to be found). But in the North everything was fine, right? So why didn’t all the Black People just move north? Well, it wasn’t always de jure segregation across the North and the West, though that existed, but it was often de facto.

The North had it’s own way of keeping White and Black apart. Restrictive housing covenants, redlining, destroying communities with public works projects, employment difficulties (last hired-first fired, unequal pay for the same work, unable to join unions, etc.), and violence against Black workers, to name a few. It didn’t matter where African Americans moved, they were going to face discrimination of one sort or another because of White America’s perceptions about Black People.  So after all of the work done, from 1865 to 1968 (the unofficial end of this particular stage of the ongoing Civil Rights Movement), African Americans were still not accepted as equal by large swaths of America.

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Black Lives Matter

So that’s a lot of chaos to deal with (349 years worth of chaos, to be exact). Between 1619 and 1968 the Black community in America endured more hardships, more violence, experienced more senseless acts fueled by hatred, than any other group—(not the Irish, not the Italians, not the Jews, not the Poles, Czechs, Germans, Greeks, Chinese, Mexicans, Norwegians, Russians, Scots-Irish, Indians (not Native Americans), Catholics, et al.). And this is not to say that all of those groups didn’t experience difficulties/violence, they did, but not anywhere near the extent that the Black community suffered. And yes, Native Americans suffered for a longer period (basically from the time Columbus “discovered” Asia India Hispaniola and began killing Taino & Arawak Peoples). And yes, the history of Native Peoples in this entire hemisphere is littered with the erasure of numerous Native Nations and complete disregard for the lives of other non-White inhabitants. I’m not arguing that First Peoples experiences (with White People) have been mostly positive, on the contrary; however, the fact that African Americans were subjected, daily, to being treated as 2nd class citizens, at best, sub-human at worst, for this duration, is hard to refute. And if you thought that was the end of the story, you thought wrong; it’s 2016, not 1968.

We’ve seen what can be accomplished, more or less, with amendments: the 13th, 14th, 15th, but we haven’t yet looked at what can be taken away regardless of an amendment. The 4th amendment was written to prevent the government from snooping around just because they want to. It reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

And that seems not only reasonable, but very sensible. The Founding Fathers included it as a means of preventing the same type of behaviors that the British had perpetrated against them, when they were colonists. So it is somewhat surprising, knowing the importance of our Constitution and the Rights it bestows upon its citizenry, that the 4th amendment has been significantly eroded over the past 50 years. What’s that you say, my 4th amendment rights, eroded? Preposterous! Unthinkable! This is heresy, By God! Well, here it is.

Beginning in 1968, in the case of Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court sided with the State in deciding that it was within the law for an officer to “stop and frisk” a person/persons whom the officer thought might be plotting a crime (reasonable suspicion). It sounds ok, when you first read it, but when one looks at where it has led us (with many more cases since then, expanding policing powers: Florida v. Bostick, Ohio v. Robinette, Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, etc. etc.) it might be useful to read the words of Supreme Court Justice Marshall from the 1968 case, mentioned above. In his dissent (it was an 8-1 decision) Marshall wrote, “To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path. Perhaps such a step is desirable to cope with modern forms of lawlessness. But if it is taken, it should be the deliberate choice of the people through a constitutional amendment.” And today, we are seeing the fruits of the Court’s labor— Stop & Frisk run amok in New York City; maybe not yet a “police state”, but one can see how Justice Marshall was correct to question this type of authority. But wait, what does this have to do with African Americans? Oh, right, that. Well, as shown by the statistics, provided by NYPD, an extremely disproportionate number (based on NYC demographics) of the individuals stopped are Black and Hispanic. Which leads us to the last issue that needs to be addressed, the war on drugs.

President Nixon thought it would be a good idea to declare a war on drugs (he had a lot of “good” ideas). Putting aside the arguments about which drugs are “dangerous” and which are “safe”, we need to understand how the drug war affected American communities, Black and White. Because while one is free to think whatever they want about any particular drug, when we look at the statistics of who uses drugs, who sells drugs, who ends up going to jail because of drugs, and how jail terms differ based on the ethnicity of said person convicted of drug use/sales, we find evidence that should make everyone question what exactly is going on in the confines of our criminal justice system.

Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services) we find that drug use amongst White and Black individuals falls within a 1-2 percentage point gap, for the years 2002-2010. So that’s not why we see more Black People incarcerated for drugs. Next, we find that White People, on the whole, are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to be arrested for selling drugs, than Black People; data from studies done in 1980, 1989, 1991-1993, and 2012 (and 1980-2012 Bureau of Justice data), all provide evidence to back this up. So that’s not what’s driving incarceration rates. So it must be possession of drugs; that has to be what’s creating this disparity between Black and White…or not. Well, I’m stumped. If the war on drugs is targeting everybody, and White People, who are included in that “everybody” are found more often to be the dealers, the users, and, no surprise, those caught in “possession”, how on earth is it possible that more Black People are incarcerated on drug crimes charges?

According to studies, it looks like there are a few reasons. First, “open-air” drug markets are more common in Black neighborhoods while White People tend to go over to their friend’s house to buy their coke/weed/molly/heroine. Second, disparities in sentencing (most strikingly for marijuana, and along with every other area in the system) account for a significant portion of the numbers. Third, Stop & Frisk, targets Black and Hispanics disproportionately. And even though 10-20 percent are found guilty of “something”, that leaves 80-90 percent who have been hassled for no apparent reason, other than a cop thinks you “look suspicious”. What if Dr.s and mechanics and hair stylists and chefs got “it” right 10-20 percent of the time, we wouldn’t put up with it. But this is different, right? It’s for our public safety. Be honest with yourself, if you were approached and engaged by law enforcement while walking down the street, or driving home from work, or playing in a park, or riding a bike on the sidewalk, because of how you looked, would you really be ok with that? I doubt it. And what about those “criminals” who may have committed some sort of offense, like “selling cigarettes“, or dealing marijuana, or they were driving erratically, or experiencing a bout of mental illness, but are obviously of no threat to any one (other than their self) including the officers? We need to understand how this systematic discrimination (profiling) creates distrust between communities of Color and the police.

The war on drugs didn’t come about because the use of drugs exploded in 1971. Nor did stop & frisk come about because of an increase of robberies or violent acts. None of this data provides evidence that drug use sharply increased over the past 30 years, because it didn’t. Law enforcement focused more attention on arresting people with drugs, in part, because of the incentives that were offered to departments across the nation. And in this way, we’ve witnessed the “criminalization” of communities of Color, all across America. And this, brings us to 2016.

So now that you have a better understanding of some of the reasons (not all, that’s several books worth of material) that the continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, is embraced by so many people, of all Colors and Creed, from all Cultures and Communities, you still might choose to not embrace Black Lives Matter; but at least you will have some understanding of why so many people are so upset about what continues to happen to People of Color in our Country. It’s been 397 years since 1619. Millions of African Americans have encountered vitriol and violent acts simply because they are perceived to be different. And while it is true that everybody has something that makes them unique, and we should in no way minimize those attributes, we must get beyond allowing perceptions to colour our belief systems. We have made progress on many fronts but to believe that we are “there” is to deceive oneself.

On their “History” page, Black Lives Matter provides the background on what led to their founding of the organization and they offer some advice for our society:

Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.”

It would do society good to remember this. In addition to those who disavow Black Lives Matter because of their sincere belief that it is nothing more than a hate group… some “forward thinking” groups and individuals fail to apply context to current events in light of historical realities. It is 2016. We have to educate our youth, and each other, about where we are, how we got here, and then start having the conversations about how to move beyond this place. Policies that: 1) decriminalize minor drug offenses and provide treatment options for addicts; 2) mandate more training for police recruits –  specifically in the areas of deescalation and learning to work and interact with the diverse populations they are likely to encounter; 3) provide adequate funding to ensure police have what they need and can be paid better for the difficult job they do; 4) demilitarize our police departments (they are not fighting a war, they are serving and protecting their communities); 5) provide funding and incentives for public schools to spend more time teaching civics, talking about civility, and discussing the importance of context as they learn about our history. This will not fix everything overnight; but in time, we can all learn the importance of the roles played by every person that calls this land home; and more importantly, learn to respect those qualities that make each of us unique while recognizing our common bonds.

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Guns, Criminals, Constitution & Policy

Since writing this piece, a week after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando (12 June 2016), we’ve lost tens of thousands of lives, due to gun violence. The majority of them were not mass shootings, but those are the events that make the national news, most often. Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe (TX), Stoneman Douglas, & yesterday, in Annapolis, MD, to name but a few. Two things haven’t changed in the past 2 years; Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful legislation addressing the means with which the violence is carried out and people are still acting on their worst impulses, driven by extreme rhetoric from our “leaders”. This is America.

Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in 2007, had no criminal history. Adam Lanza, killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and was not, prior to this act, a criminal. James Holmes, killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, wasn’t a criminal. Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ, killed 6, not a criminal. Robert Stewart, Carthage, NC, killed 8, not a criminal. Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake Reservation, MN, killed 9, not a criminal. James Huberty, San Ysidro, CA, 21 killed, not a criminal. This list is but a small segment of the larger list of people who have been found guilty of murdering multiple persons in what we refer to as “mass shootings“. It is also a list of individuals who, prior to their crime, had never been convicted of a criminal offense. “No prior criminal history” is a common refrain found in many of the news reports discussing these and other (not all) mass murder events. It is for this reason that I am not worried about criminals getting their hands on guns.

The NRA and some of its supporters try to persuade us that it is not the average Joe who is committing these crimes, it is the work of criminals. We are reminded daily that if there are new gun restrictions, they will limit non-criminals (your average citizen) from obtaining guns; the criminals, however, will “always be able to get guns”. The problem with that narrative is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When many of the mass shooters have never been found guilty of anything more than a misdemeanor (if that) by the criminal justice system, how can we call them criminals? The fact that their criminal history begins, and ends, with one act, should be a wake-up call to lawmakers; preventing criminals from committing these types of acts may not be their number one concern.

The next group to be blamed is rather difficult to pin down because of the varied behaviors that can be seen as normal or not normal depending on whose doing the assessing. Those individuals who are experiencing mental illness, hard to manage stress (post-traumatic, chronic, acute, et al.), or depression, are often singled out as “more likely” to engage in these kinds of acts. This provides another convenient excuse for the gun extremists (which are few in number compared to the millions of gun owners nationwide); when the shooter is found to be mentally unstable (which may or may not include  those who are religiously intolerant, or affiliated with extremist views), they lay blame somewhere other than the weapons. But here too, these actions are not, in and of themselves, criminal. In the majority of these cases, criminal activity has occurred only after the shooting commences. So why does the vocal minority insist on talking to us about criminals getting guns and people who are mentally unstable, and armed, as a great danger to society? These folks aren’t the biggest concern, not even close.

Our society already watches out for those with criminal records. We “know” who commits crimes and we know some of the reasons why. We know about recidivism rates (and some programs that are working to decrease recidivism), and we keep our collective eyes peeled for the known “bad guys” who might try to do additional harm after serving their time (or they might not harm anyone). But we don’t have heightened senses for those who have never been charged with, nor found guilty of, a crime. They are the people we interact with every day.

Sure, most of us have talked about someone behind their back, with our spouses/partners, co-workers, pew-mates, bar buddies, and the like, about “his crazy rants“, reckless ways, violent vocal outbursts—concerning their wives, girlfriends, kids, neighbors, boss, local police, F.B.I., the President, et al. Yet, we assume that they, like so many others who have stated their disgust concerning the most recent “nuisance” in their life, are all talk and no action; because, really, who would act on these kinds of threats, especially after spouting off in front of numerous people—in public places.

Even Omar Mateen, who had some fairly normal teenage difficulties in his youth, was accused of domestic abuse, and is now known for perpetrating the worst mass shooting in our history, was not a criminal, in the eyes of the law. He was investigated and found to be a bit more of a threat than our friends Steve, or Ron, or Earl, or Pete, who like to talk big about what they’re gonna do to this, that, or the next person that “pisses them off”; but at the end of the day, everyone assumes it’s inane loud-mouthing, woofing, acting the fool, and all other manner of ludicrousness. So I ask you to think about the “criminal” and “mental illness” arguments that are made by some of our fellow citizens. Does it really make sense to concern ourselves with the known criminals when law enforcement is already paying closer attention to them? Should we really be watching our back constantly, because who knows when a person suffering from a malady of the brain is nearby? Or would we be better served to focus on what’s happening with the amount of gun violence in our culture; like, someone with a gun making a snap judgement, or maybe shooting up a street, or planning a massacre at a church, schoolrestaurant, club, workplace, or not planning it.

Most people don’t want to “get rid of the 2nd Amendment“; they just want some common sense measures to decrease the number of atrocities occurring in our nation. Policies that make it more difficult for anyone to obtain certain types of weapons or weapon accessories (high-capacity magazines, etc.) would be a good starting point. No, that won’t prevent all non-criminals (or criminals) from getting their hands on a weapon but it would likely prevent some of them—and that is better than none.

It is also better if the next mass shooting (because there will be more) takes the lives of 5, rather than 10, or 30, instead of 50. The families of those who are killed will be no less upset knowing that there were fewer victims of the violent act; the benefit, however, would be in knowing that fewer friends and family members were grieving the loss of a loved one. The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than any benefit inaction would generate.

Liberty Bell - Philadelphia, PA
Liberty Bell – Philadelphia, PA

If you’re reading this and thinking, the cost of any restriction on my rights to fully take advantage of the 2nd Amendment for my benefit is a cost I cannot bear. I would say, you might be kind of selfish, and furthermore, you’re never going to legally get your hands on the type of weaponry you would need to engage with a real military unit (you can’t afford an F-16), so why make such a fuss about restrictions aimed at saving lives. The idea of a militia (as referred to in the 2nd Amendment (Amendment II: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.)), acting as a military force against a standing army,  no longer exists. We aren’t fighting the Red Coats anymore, technological advances (and having the most lethal military forces in the world) have rendered local militias mute, for this particular cause. The Constitution, to include the Bill of Rights, must adopt to the changes in our society while meeting the challenges of upholding the intent of the Framers.

What we need right now is lawmakers who are willing to look at current policies and make adjustments to outdated laws in addition to instituting new ideas. This applies not only to assault style weapons but to mental health counseling services and policies aimed at moving our civilization towards a more open and accepting society; we are, at best, a cautious and private society (especially to anyone who appears different from us) and at our worst, we are angry and hateful, particularly when we feel our social mores, our “way of life”, is threatened.

Hate is the primary driver of violence. This is not a theory, or some notion that a wise philosopher came up with while sitting atop a mountain, it’s a fact. People don’t generally kill, or maim, or injure other people because they love them or find them funny; they perpetrate these actions because of hate. In all it’s forms, hatred makes us want to lash out at someone/something. Maybe the person who caused us to feel “this way” or maybe the person that happens to be close at hand. The recipient of our rage is not as important as our inability to control it. Hate is the emotion that feeds the desire to do harm, and it’s become a bit too rampant in the present day. It must be addressed; and the laws that tackle it must have teeth.

Legislating anti-hate policy is never easy, but Americans are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We have football (American Style) and Hockey, Baltimore and NOLA, Lumberjacks and Miners,  and of course, we have Marines. We aren’t short on tough. But some of our lawmakers are short on courage. They lack the fortitude necessary to do what is right because it is unpopular with certain constituents and supporters. They are neither valiant, nor virtuous. They think first about themselves (i.e. re-election) and then about everything else. I don’t think of that as particularly American in character.

This may sound like a pie in the sky scenario, legislating acceptance and tolerance, but I’m not convinced that it can’t work. Sometimes, in order to create change, it is necessary to try the unthinkable. Maybe it could start with making civics and civility a more relevant piece of our educational curriculum. And communities could spend more time and money on making their members feel like they are part of the same gang (might even be an opportunity for some job creation here). Celebrate the uniqueness (the differences) that each group within the community contributes (just don’t get stuck on those differences, move forward to find similarities that are shared). Pretend, if necessary, that you like meeting new people; and in time, you might actually start to enjoy it.

Vanilla—It Ain’t White

What happened to vanilla? Seriously. When was it that vanilla came to be associated with a shade of the color white, and an adjective describing “bland”—and why? Who would commit such an injustice to a product of the beautiful Vanilla planifolia (a member of the orchidaceae family)? And what, you’re probably thinking, does this have to do with policy? Well, quite a bit.

The history of vanillaproduction” started in the geographic locale of the Aztec Empire (previously controlled by the Teotihuacán and then the Toltecs), in what we now know as Mexico (North America) and was cultivated by the Totonac. With the arrival of the Spanish into this region (circa 1520) and other areas in the Western Hemishpere, the Old World and New World underwent drastic changes. The movement of ideas, disease, precious metals, technologies, foodstuffs, and spices, et al., which would come to be known as the Columbian Exchange, dramatically changed the course of both hemispheres (this period also saw the annihilation/genocide of millions of indigenous peoples and several empires, by Columbus, Cortés, and other conquistadors, and their men). And the “exchange” of vanilla, to the Old World, was the first step in vanilla’s story of becoming a colour no longer tied to the plant’s origins. 

Fast forward 200 years and we might find the next clue in the color mix-up. Ice cream was gaining in popularity in 18th century Europe (according to historians), and when a fearless culinary madame/monsieur mixed vanilla into a batch of ice cream, I believe the “white” fallacy was born. As the base of ice cream is, yep, you guessed it, cream, the thick and fatty substance that is strangely similar in color to today’s perceived shade of vanilla, it would make sense that over time people eating vanilla ice cream would wrongly assume that vanilla was white. But this doesn’t help explain the other part—bland, plain, blah, meh.

Over the next couple of centuries, ice cream became America’s favorite dessert (even in ice cream deserts). And naturally, the colors that were most commonly associated with the frozen treat: white (vanilla), brown (chocolate), and pink (strawberry), also came to have additional significance.  Here’s where we may find part of the background on vanilla’s “plain Jane” problem. Whether it was due to the seemingly more decadent taste of chocolate (and all that went along with the desire to have something “other/different”), or the memories of a dish of freshly churned ice cream with just picked wild strawberries mixed in, after a Fourth-of-July celebration, the widespread availability of “regular” vanilla didn’t seem to evoke the same type of emotion. Which leads me to believe that the passage of time, combined with the desire to believe what is placed in front of one’s face, has led to the misconception of vanilla’s True Colors. As a society, we believe vanilla is both white, and boring, neither of which bear any resemblance to the true character of this most flavorful and versatile spice.

So now that we’ve determined who and what is responsible for this catastrophe of maligned color designation, lets talk about other instances where time and indifference have contributed to beliefs that are neither true nor sensical (which is akin to sensible). And then, I’ll discuss the importance of truth in labeling and the deleterious effects of buying products that are not what we think they are (this is where policy comes into play).

We currently accept a great deal of what is presented as fact, so long as the presenter is acceptable to our ears and eyes. The effects of such marketing/propaganda have helped shape current debates, policies, historical inaccuracies and general attitudes. Ask 10 people why the U.S. Civil War was fought and you’re likely to get one of three answers:  Three might say slavery, two might look at you like your speaking Shyriiwook, and the other five would likely say States Rights. Both answers are correct, in a way. However, many people still believe that the war was primarily about States Rights. And while we can say it was related to that idea, we must explain that the one right that was by far the most important (to the men who controlled the States), was the right to own human beings (slavery). Some “smarty pants” might spout off a list of rights that includes: taxation, tariffs, trade, freedom from federal powers, blah blah blah (they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher). Yet, they leave out the fact that the Bill of Rights, specifically, the 10th Amendment, covered many of the State’s concerns. And, when one looks more closely at each of the “concerns”, they all have direct links to slavery, i.e. the South’s primary economic driver. So while this long held belief (State’s rights), as a stand alone argument, is essentially wrong, incorrect, untrue, a lie, we are still talking about it as if there’s some doubt as to the veracity of the real reason for our Civil War, the enslavement of human beings.

A short list of other time-tested fallacious fabrications, fictions, falsifications, fibs, and falsehoods includes: ♠ Jesus was “White”—kind of like vanilla, Jesus was a darker shade than the one he is often purported to resemble; ♣ the term “race” as used to describe different ethnicities—just plain wrong; ♥ we don’t lose 50% of our body heat through our noggin (this is not an excuse to go without a hat when it’s -20°); ♦ trickle-down economics will lift all boats—think about it, if you could make 10 million dollars a year by working more hours or fewer, which would you choose? Well, wealthy business people think the same, if they can work less, hire fewer people, invest less capital in new ventures and still make the same amount of money, why bother with all the extra nonsense. They have vacation homes to visit (not just 1 little cabin in the Northwoods), yachts to party on, polo matches to watch, and politicians to influence…they’re busy folks. So lets get on with the process of making income/wealth inequality grow; ♠ and while we’re on the topic of finance, “money can’t buy happiness”—I’d be happy to make a wager with anybody who’s looking to lose some money. Sure, after a certain amount of wealth is earned, we wouldn’t expect to gain as much “utility” from an extra million or two; but for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck, or is unemployed and relying on the social insurance programs administered by government agencies, money can and does buy happiness. ♣ and a couple more recent illustrations of this phenomenon: ♥ you have to be smart to be successful—George W. Bush (I’m not hating, just pointing out the obvious); ♦ and, guns are just tools, like shovels, rakes, garden hoes, etc.—guns were designed with one purpose in mind, and it wasn’t skeet shooting. Guns were the next big thing in the evolution of individually controlled killing implements. While many people use them for shooting clay pigeons, beer bottles, pumpkins, and the dust off of a fly’s wing, they are still designed to end a life, be it human or animal. That, I would argue, is a far cry from what most “tools” are designed to accomplish.

Now then, let’s look at the problems associated with products that are labeled as (ex.) ƒ(x) = 36x + 5, but what you actually end up with is pistachio pudding. What happened? How did that function of (x), that I bought with my hard-earned money, turn out to be pistachio pudding? Well, maybe the celebrity endorser pitching the product wasn’t being completely honest with you. Or maybe you wanted to believe that you could get a real Rolex for $150. because that guy on the corner with the table of nice watches really needed the money and that’s the only reason he was selling it so cheap. Sometimes, nobody is any worse for the deal. The knockoff Prada handbag made the buyer happy to have a replica that looked legit, and the salesperson made some money. The problems occur when you are unknowingly endangering yourself or others.

Do you remember the toxic drywall that was imported from China and caused (and is still causing) plumbing, electrical, and health problems across the South? How about the formaldehyde trailers that were delivered to displaced Gulf Coast residents after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005 (because that’s just what every dislocated person wants after a catastrophic event, more health problems)? Ever asked for a Coke at a restaurant and gotten a Pepsi, or is it Royal Crown, no, wait…it’s “cola”, something sharing a few of Coke’s qualities, carbonated water, caramel color, caffeine, but definitely not the same as Coke. Big or small, these things matter. When we’re told we are buying, or being provided with, one product, and later find that we’ve gotten something that is close to what we assumed we were getting, but not quite the same (and in some cases extremely different), we have reason for concern if not downright outrage. Sure, the generic cola won’t kill us (we hope), but if you’ve been looking forward to lunch (at the place your project manager recommended), thinking about that patty melt with bacon, perfectly deep fried tater-tots, and the crisp refreshing bite that hits the back of the palette after taking a big swig of real Coke, and instead you get a lackluster mouthful of overly saccharine cola, your lunch break letdown won’t ruin the rest of your day (your coworker did that by accidentally squeezing the jelly out of his donut and onto your shirt sleeve), but you might return to the office feeling a bit more deflated than when you left, and now you have to go into a post-lunch meeting with the same project manager, the one who tells you to smile more, with one less reason to smile and one more reason to leave anonymous hateful little notes on his desk.

Again, a short list of items that you may want to double check prior to purchasing (or maybe you like to live dangerously): ♠ fish—the mislabeling of seafood is bad for three reasons: you might be paying too much for an inferior product that doesn’t taste as good, the people working on the fishing boats are enslaved, and you could be unwittingly eating a fish that is currently over-fished/not sustainable; ♣ sunglasses—if you’re not concerned about your eyes long-term viability, don’t worry about this; conversely, if you hope to keep your sight top notch into your golden years (so you can watch the paint dry), make sure you’re getting the real deal; ♥ fragrances/cosmetics—some of the chemicals etc. that are being used in the fakes are toxic and/or gross; ♦ pharmaceuticals—no commentary necessary here, but, think about the cost and the potential consequences of getting a drug that is potentially the same but due to lack of oversight the dosage might be high, or low, and make you more sick, or simply fail to cure what ails you; ♠ flea & tick products—many are good, some are not, and your pets are not the only family members that can be affected.

Mislabeling of products, and inaccurate classifications run the gamut from “no big deal” to “holy shit, that coulda killed me”; these are issues I think about when I hear people relating boring and white (like this guy appears) to vanilla. Vanilla is anything but boring and most certainly not even close to any shade of white. And while the vanilla farmers of Mexico, Madagascar, Comoros, et al. may not care what you believe about vanilla, so long as you’re buying it, I think of the vanilla lie as a type of “gateway drug” to believing, and even promoting, other untrue and possibly slanderous/historically inaccurate theories. Fertilizers, pesticides, nutritional supplements, comestibles, and other products are regularly found to be noncompliant with generally accepted consumer product safety measures/standards.

To be clear, I know that vanilla ice cream, frosting (butter cream or others), protein powders, yogurt, etc., etc., are shades of white (and sometimes very bland) due to other ingredients. However, these products, and others, have coloured our perceptions about actual vanilla characteristics. When we make assumptions about something based on false pretenses, we fail to consider the background as well as the implications and ramifications for future generations. Policies that fail to address flawed or distorted belief systems (thank you South CaroliniansGov. Haley) and overlook misleading (intentional or otherwise) product statements can have serious negative consequences, both known and unknown.

Anytime someone is trying to sell you something, or sell anyone else something, take a piece of advice from Suzanne Massie, “Trust but verify”.

Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black
Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black

Owl City – Vanilla Twilight

If you’d like to see the difference real vanilla can make in a simple way, buy a vanilla Coke (if you can find it) and make a vanilla Coke using Mexican Coke. The flavor differential is significant.

New Orleans: Where It’s At & Where it Could Be—10 Years On.

NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites
NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites

The city of New Orleans was established by the French, in 1718. 45 years later, the Spanish had taken over the city, and the rest of the Louisiana Territory (by way of the Treaty of Fontainebleau). And then, 40 years after that, the Spanish allied themselves with France, and returned the Territory to the French, allowing Napoleon to sell the reacquired land to the United States (1803); and for about .04¢ an acre, President Jefferson scored the city that would become one of America’s greatest cultural icons.

202 years, and many tropical depressions, hurricanes and other weather related events, later, the Crescent City was pummeled by Katrina. Since official record keeping began, Hurricane Katrina (to include floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain via the compromised levees) has been the most destructive storm to hit the Gulf Coast. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was responsible for more lives lost, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was more intense, but in sheer devastation of land, buildings, economic loss, and displacement of people, Katrina stands alone.

It should be noted that while Hurricane Katrina was ultimately responsible for producing the weather conditions that caused the levees to fail, the failure of those levees is seen by many as a man-made disaster that exacerbated the naturally occurring disaster that was a storm of epic proportion.

The word “unbelievable” is one that I almost never use, mainly because it’s not applicable. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, I seem to find the word “unbelievable” most apropos when describing the failures of the local, state, and federal, government response. Considering the technology that was available, the wealth of resources our nation (and our allies) had to offer, advanced logistical capabilities, and the extending of hands from tens of thousands of people, one would think that the situations that occurred in the Superdome, with policing issues, foreign aid, FEMA, and displaced citizens, would have been avoidable, but alas, they weren’t. From President Bush lying about “[nobody] anticipat[ing] the “breach of the levees” to Mayor Nagin failing to order a mandatory evacuation of the city, the dereliction of duty was seemingly in every public office; from NOLA’s Central Business District to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, the entire post-hurricane SNAFU was, and still is, UNBELIEVABLE!

But let us not dwell on the past, too much. Instead, let’s think about where NOLA is and where it could be. 10 years is, relatively speaking, a long time in a young person’s life. Most children born in 2005 will be going into the 4th or 5th grade this fall. They are more than 1/3 of the way through their K-12 education. While those who were in 1st or 2nd grade will likely be Juniors or Seniors in high school. And, in New Orleans, that means charter schools, for the most part.

New Orleans Public School system is now (since the 2004-05 school year) an amalgamation of “regular” public schools (operated by Orleans Public School Board (OPSB)) and public charters (managed by the Recovery School Board (RSB) or the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)). As of the 2013-14 school year, a total of 44 Boards of Education were operating 87 schools in New Orleans; 30 of those schools were operating as Independent Charter Schools and are overseen by the (BESE). As The Cowen Institute-Tulane University points out in their annual report, this number of boards, each with its own policies and procedures, does not lend itself to equitable opportunities or equal treatment of students. Nor does it make good sense fiscally.

The students of these schools are not vastly different from students in other large metropolitan school districts, with a couple of exceptions—they are dealing with the traumatic effects of at least one life altering event (for many students, the number is higher) and they are guinea pigs for a post-Katrina education governance system. They have their struggles and successes in and out of the classroom and they are engaged in social media, sports, and music, as well as debate, chess, and theatre. But they also have a district with 92% of students attending charter schools (which have varied track records, just like public schools, but with less stability) and are more likely to have undergone severe stress due to Katrina and the events that occurred in their everyday lives, after the waters receded.

For the past 10 years, New Orleans’ citizens have been trying to get back to some semblance of “normal”. To say its been a tough road would be akin to saying, getting hit in the face with a tire iron might sting a bit. These kid’s lives have been turned upside down, sideways, and inside out; and the adults have experienced just as much chaos but with even more responsibilities i.e. stressors. Events like those that were brought on by Katrina and the ensuing failure of the levees and multiple government entities are enough to make the strongest people break.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only trouble the Gulf Coast would experience in a relatively short time frame. Adding a financial meltdown that started in late 2007, and turned into the Great Recession, heaps trouble on top of difficulty. The impact was, according to some economists, less severe in a Gulf Coast that was just starting to recover. However, with billions of dollars of aid being pumped into specific sectors for rebuilding, outside groups bringing in manpower and putting money into a few areas in the regional economy, and many citizens still not back home, it may mask the true impact of the recession on the locals. Either way, it definitely had an effect on the local industries which had to, post 2005, repair or replace physical facilities (and boats), hire and train new employees, deal with insurance companies and government personnel, and do it all while trying to manage the stress brought on by the initial act and compounded by the secondary and tertiary issues that followed. Then, as if a National Recession wasn’t bad enough, B.P. had to bring international pain to the Gulf.

The 2010 oil spill (TransOcean/BP) that killed 11 rig workers, lasted 87 days (and then some), and pumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the lifeblood of two major industries (fishing and tourism), was the blow that could have sealed the fate of the great cultural entity that is NOLA. And truthfully, New Orleans, and the greater Gulf Coast region, affected by: 1) government malfeasance; 2) the Army Corps of Engineers; and 3) Katrina; have struggled to make it back; many have likely been hanging on by a very thin thread. But don’t “misunderestimate” them; they will not give up, they will not quit.

And this includes the young people. THEY ARE TOUGH! Mentally, Emotionally, and Physically; much tougher than any child should have to be. But that is the hand they were dealt, and they are, All In. The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is secure, if not quite certain of where It will be in 50 years. The policies that are implemented, and the people crafting those policies, will play an important role in determining what that future looks like.

A lot of policies have been implemented in the post-Katrina era. Many have not had adequate time to be judged, others are failing to one degree or another, and some have had success, if limited. And this is good. If no new policies had been tried, it would have been a sign that the people were giving up. So long as the political affairs continue, imperfect though they may be, the community will survive and eventually, if not quite yet, thrive.

Three major catastrophes in five years would be too much for many cities. But yet, there it is, NOLA! The City that Care Forgot. The people who brought us so much of what is central to many of our everyday lives. Who Dat think they gonna wreck The Big Easy. Resilience, Tenacity, and Fortitude, are key characteristics of a 26.3er; so too are they abundant elements throughout Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. They endured decades of the “Aints“, the loss of the Jazz (now in Utah, that’s still weird), and gators the size of an AMC Pacer. They don’t scare easy and they’re in it for the long haul.

So when people would say, in the months and years proceeding late August of 2005: “why should ‘we’ rebuild a city that sits below sea level?”, I’d reply, “Because in addition to Mardi Gras, Sazeracs, and Southern Hospitality, NOLA has provided us with 3 iconic pieces of what it means to be ‘American’ (regardless of whether or not you enjoy any of the three): Jazz music, Creole cooking, and Truman Capote. To not rebuild New Orleans would be like the Polish not rebuilding Warsaw; or Japan not rebuilding Tokyo; and our nation, on 26 August 1814, saying, “eh, it’s just our Capital, let’s not worry about it”. Without New Orleans, America would be just another superpower with a bunch of Nukes, a wealth of world-class cheese and beer, and a long list of World Champions who never played a team from beyond our shores (and Toronto’s Jays and Raptors rosters are largely staffed by guys from the country that lies just South of Canada) .

So here we are, 10 years later. New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, as well as parts of Mississippi’s and Alabama’s Gulf Coast are still rebuilding, still renewing, still rehabbing—lives, physical structures, and the many interconnected pieces of the larger Gulf Coast community. It is hard to imagine what life was like for the residents of this region over the past 10 years. But we know it was hard for all and exceedingly difficult for a good many. And we also know they are coming back, one step at a time. So if you have the means, and you’re not opposed to having “Too Much Fun“, head on down to The Crescent City and Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler.

Here are a few additional links to some music, articles, and information relating to New Orleans and this story.

Rebirth Brass Band: Move Your Body-The Funky Biscuit

Hot 8 Brass Band: Sexual Healing

The Atlantic: The Big Comeback     By: Derek Thompson

Los Angeles Times: Recalling Days of Despair in the Superdome    By: Kim Murphy

The New Orleans Advocate: 10 Years Later 

Preservation Hall Brass Band: Iko Iko

Terence Blanchard: Levees—–From: A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).

Kermit Ruffins: Drop Me Off In New Orleans

The Animals: House of the Rising Sun

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—–A Spike Lee Documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the entire hot mess of government disfunction.

Treme: HBO Series – Produced by David Simon & Eric Overmyer—-Great series that gives one a taste of New Orleans amazing music scene and what life was like in New Orleans after Katrina.